November 15, 2017

Civil Rights Unit Ends Cornell Title IX Probe Due to Lack of Evidence, Four Investigations Remain Open

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Citing “insufficient evidence,” the Department of Education’s civil rights unit closed one of its probes into a complaint against Cornell’s Title IX practices on Tuesday, ending the University’s unsavory reign as one of the colleges being investigated for the most alleged Title IX violations in the country.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights closed the investigation into whether Cornell responded “promptly and equitably” to a complaint of sexual assault. There was insufficient evidence to find that Cornell had acted inappropriately, a department spokesperson said.

The civil rights office is still investigating four other complaints at Cornell. The office says that the investigations do not imply any wrongdoing on the University’s part, only that the complaints fall under the purview of the OCR.

Previously, Cornell was under six investigations at once, making it the University being investigated for more alleged violations at once than any other institution across the country.  When OCR closed one of its investigations of Cornell in September, the University became tied with two schools — Indiana University at Bloomington and Kansas State University — for the most active investigations.

The more recent Tuesday closure involved an alleged sexual assault in the spring semester of 2015, according to a letter the OCR sent Cornell in June 2016. A student who reported being the victim of that encounter told the OCR in March 2016 that Cornell failed to respond “promptly and equitably” to the report of that assault, according to the letter.

Three months after the complaint was filed, the civil rights unit launched its investigation, which it closed this week, 16 months after it began. The OCR said the complaint lacked sufficient evidence, meaning that a preponderance of the evidence did not support the student’s allegation against the University, according to the OCR’s Case Processing Manual.

Investigations of these kinds last for an average of nearly two years, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Title IX tracker. One investigation into a complaint against Cornell has been active for nearly 2.5 years, and another is nearly two years old.

Of the four inquiries remaining, three are investigating complaints that the University did not “promptly and equitably” respond to allegations of sexual assault. One of the complainants adds that the University not only failed to investigate the person’s complaint promptly, but also that it discriminated against a student due to race, color or national origin.

The fourth complaint was filed by a student accused of sexual misconduct. That student said the University discriminated against him or her based on the student’s sex.

This is the second investigation against Cornell to be closed this year. The first was closed as “an administrative closure” in early September, a label that leaves the details of the closure unclear. OCR may close a case in that manner for several reasons, such as when a similar complaint is made in a court or as a result of “OCR policy determinations.”

The case that was closed in September has similar details to an ongoing case in Tompkins County Supreme Court.

Under the Trump Administration, the OCR has resolved these cases at a faster rate than under the Obama administration, according to The Chronicle’s tracker. The current administration has rescinded Obama-era guidance that detailed how colleges receiving federal funds were expected to handle sexual misconduct complaints.

Colleges are still required to investigate sexual misconduct complaints, but they can now use a more demanding burden of proof in sexual misconduct hearings or allow only the accused student to appeal a case outcome.

Cornell did not respond to a request for comment on the closure.